Contest #105 shortlist ⭐️

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Speculative Fantasy Science Fiction

“Oh, I swear to God, if you don’t start spinning this goddamn instant, I’m gonna smash your glass in and make the toaster watch.” Gripping the edges of my microwave, tightly enough to feel its corners digging into my palms, I growled and gave it a hearty shake. This animalistic roar echoed off my kitchen’s green floors, and another mighty peal of thunder sounded outside.

A flash of lightning painted the room a strange shade of white-olive, the tile catching the glint, and all at once, I felt as though I were the god of storms, speaking my almighty willpower into the microwave that night.

The appliance whirred. It bent to me. And dully, the light came on. The timer blinked. And the leftover pizza began to twirl. And that was that. I sighed, deeply, slumping backward against the countertop as the sky finally opened.

The patter of rain filled the building.

This routine could not have come from a sane man, I realized. Sane men did not anthropomorphize their microwaves. They did not threaten to kill their microwaves. They did not inflict psychological torture on their toasters.

Crash!

I jolted. It was that special time of night, when the dude in the apartment above seemed to trip and knock everything over. Clank. Bang. Thud! Kaboom! I winced. Was he okay?

“Shut up!” My voice was hoarse. With a long-practiced motion, I pulled the broom from the nearby wall and gave the ceiling four good thumps. And then silence.

I caught my reflection in the oven door. There I stood, armed with a broom, with my shoulders hunched like the world’s worst action figure. I came with a super-hydraulic striped bathrobe, patchy facial hair, and a crooked lip, which healed badly after some guy clocked me in high school.

The microwave beeped. And leaning the broom against the wall, I tugged it open with a grunt to pull out the bubbling grease sponge I was going to eat that night.

I grimaced, knocking the microwave closed with my hip, flicking off the light, and dragging myself into the living room, where I dropped down on the sofa in front of the TV.

The sofa was old, covered in faded brown flowers, and in truth, the television was not much newer. I got them both at the same thrift store—although the attendant would not give me a deal. I wrote them a pretty nasty review that night.

But placing the plate on the cushion to my left, I scooped up the slice in one hand and shoved it into my mouth. My nostrils flared at the sour sensation on my tongue, my taste buds screaming: “No, no, not like this. Anything but this. Just drink actual poison or something.”

I dropped the pizza back onto the plate with a grunt. So much for dinner. I would starve to death.

Michael had been the cook. That night, two years ago, when I sunk into a chair at our kitchen table, my tie already undone, something was boiling on the stove. He had even arranged the alphabet magnets on the fridge to say cutesy shit like, ‘bake the world a better place.’

He did that a lot, actually. I thought it was stupid and told him so, but he was good with words. And I wasn’t.

The little television on the counter was playing a Password rerun.

I should have said something that night. I should have said that whatever was boiling smelled great, or looked good, or that he had clearly worked hard on it. But I didn’t.

“The prick finally did it, Mikey,” I mumbled instead. “He fired me.”

“Oh…oh, it’s okay! We’ll figure it out. You’re good at so many things. You’ll land on your feet.” And he draped two arms over my shoulders, squeezing them tight. But we did not figure it out, and I was not good at anything. And I realize now those were the only two times Michael had ever lied to me.

But screw him. And screw that job. And screw that fridge. And screw the fancy cheeses he kept in it. And screw how much rent that place was asking. And screw me for taking it out on him.

I sighed again. All I did these days was starve and sigh and fight with the microwave. And it was my own damn fault. So, I would sit here and feel sorry for myself and mourn for the rest of my life.

Leaning forward, my bones creaking, I manually flicked on the television. Another flash of lighting sparked outside, and the screen came to life in a flurry of static and snow.

Click.

I moved through the channels, one hand on the dial and one on the antenna, twisting it left and right.

Click.

“Romance. The new fragrance….”

Click.

Italia right in your microwave! New pizza from….”

Click.

“Welcome back to our 24-hour Buzzwords! marathon!”

I could barely see the picture through the fuzz, but the program was some game show from the 70s, complete with a mustached host in a plaid suit.

He dragged around a narrow, wired microphone and made his way through a bright studio, shimmering orange, utterly, sickeningly orange, while a young woman with a sparkling smile, the fabulous Carla, showed off a deluxe dinette set.

I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms as I slumped back into the cushion.

And all at once came another mighty crash of thunder, a rumbling noise punctuated by dude upstairs, who dropped another pot, perhaps as startled as I had been by the sound.

The rain reached a climax, as if it might break the windows. Something bright darted across the darkened sky, an airplane maybe. I wonder if it had been struck by lightning. And I actually cried out as, with a mighty surge, the television screen flashed and sputtered out, fried. 

“Oh, Christ!” I growled, throwing back my head. The microwave did this, I decided. It had gotten all its little technology buddies to act out.

I slammed the thing with my palm, once, twice, three times, each responding with only a hollow thud. And when this scientific effort failed, I climbed to my feet and dropped to all-fours to crawl around the television’s rear. The frayed carpet dug into my knees as I tugged the extension cord from the wall.

Well, at least it wasn’t smoking, I mused, something of a crude smirk finding its way to my face. Because this was funny. In a sad tragicomic kind of way, this was funny.

Even now, I could find humor in how utterly pathetic I looked, crawling around on my knees with my boxers hanging out, all because I wanted to watch lesser-known game show reruns.

“Work or I’m gonna go back in that kitchen and throw your commander out the window, you hear me?” Leaning backward and sitting on my legs, I waved the cord deliberately before the television screen. And with that, I ducked back down and plugged it into the wall.

I blinked. And all I saw was light, a strange, fluorescent glow that consumed every inch of my vision.

Oh my God, I thought. I’m dead.

I electrocuted myself, and I’m dead.

My feet were planted on the ground. I was standing. I had crawled around to plug the television into the wall, but somehow, I was now standing. And I could not remember getting up.

“Welcome back to Buzzwords!

I blinked again, and in that moment. I realized the blinding light was not white at all, but utterly, sickeningly orange. And there I was, like a moron, standing at a podium with a smile plastered across my face.

In truth, I wanted to scowl or grimace or something, but I couldn’t. My muscles ignored me. And on their own, my hands came up to applaud.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m your host, Buddy Guy. And we have a great show for you tonight.”

The hell?

“Let’s meet our contestants and get the game underway.” Buddy smiled broadly and walked in my direction.

I found my mouth opening of its own accord.

“Hi, Buddy! My name is John Smith. I’m from Columbus, Ohio, and I want to say hello to my wife, Betty.” These words spilled from me as if rehearsed, without my input, as though I were a passenger in my own head (or, as it turned out, someone else’s).

And the absolute worst was that I could not cringe. I could not roll my eyes. I could not grunt or groan at just how saccharine I sounded, nor at the fact that my name was John Smith.

“Welcome, John. Good to have you.” Buddy Guy moved past me like an automaton, introducing a waitress from New York and a wannabe actor, who lived with his beloved roommate William of five years in Los Angeles.

And if I had to choose someone to be from this panel, it probably would have been him, because then at least I would not have a wife named Betty.

But this could not be happening; it certainly was not happening. I was not miming the motions of John Smith from Ohio. It was not 1970-whatever. And so, I truly must have been dead.

This whole illusion was that thing, that thing where synapses fire because your brain is pissed about non-existence. And if I could turn my own head, which I could not, I would have peered into the audience to look for departed relatives.

But John stared forward, and so did I.

“Tonight, our contestants are competing for a stunning new kitchen set. Tell them all about it, Jack.”

An announcer from offstage began singing the praises of the sparkling refrigerator, oven range, and microwave that appeared from behind a velvet curtain. The audience ooo’d and ahh’d.

And by now, Carla had emerged to point at everything, but I barely saw her. Even from this vantage point, unable to move on my own, I could catch my reflection in the oven door.

John Smith was, well, a man, yes, but in a strange, overly generic way. He, and by extension, I, had an average build, brown hair, brown eyes, and a decidedly uncrooked lip, one nobody had ever socked in.

He was the sort of person you might see in a department store catalogue, I thought, or in a stock photograph of an office: unassuming and smiley.

But I could not look long.

My head was turning as the unflappable Buddy Guy made his way once again in my direction.

“Let’s reveal our first puzzle,” the host smiled, and taking this cue, Carla pulled out a marker, as if from nowhere, and drew a crude approximation of a gallows on the refrigerator door.

Spinning in a little circle, red gown flashing, she then tugged open the microwave to allow a multicolored pile of alphabet magnets to spill forth from within.

It was just goddamn Hangman, I realized. And I didn’t even get to spin a wheel or anything.

“How about a letter, John?”

“V!” I cried against my will.

Oh great. John sucked at this game.

“Sorry. No ‘V’s.’”

And so, it went.

The waitress guessed a “Y,” and actually scored a few points. Fishing the letters from the microwave pile, Carla stuck the magnets to the fridge. The actor guessed a number in the form of a question.

I unironically said the phrase “Oh, gee!” when there were no “X’s.”

And at this rate, it took us two whole commercial breaks to get to the unimpressive:

Y_ _  M_D_  Y_ _ R  B _ D.  N_W  LI_  IN  I_

By now, the hanging man was missing only his feet.

This was hell, I thought. I had died, and I had gone to hell.

And I would be terrible at this word game forever, and that was my punishment for being mean to the dude in the apartment upstairs.

And writing that bad review of the thrift store.

And for Michael, who had only ever lied to me twice.

“I’d like to solve it, Buddy!” I grinned.

“Go ahead, John.”

“You made your bed. Now lie in it!”

There were buzzers and bells, and the audience cheered.

“That’s right, John. You made your bed. Now you’re lying in it.”

Buddy smiled at me, and for a moment, a crack appeared, something sharp and sinister behind his cheery expression. His lip twitched, and a flicking tongue, snakelike, nipped the lower part of his mustache.

“I deserve to lie in it, Buddy!”

And somehow, this was actually pretty goddamn funny. If I could, I would have laughed.

“Onto our next puzzle,” Buddy cut in as Carla knocked down all the letters, leaving them on the floor. She used her bare hand to smudge off the marker.

“Can I have a ‘Y,’ Buddy?”

Jesus Christ, John. How about an actual letter or something ? Whatever happened to “A?”

I sighed internally. But to my surprise, Carla reached into the microwave and retrieved the red letter, placing it on the refrigerator door.  John actually did it. He got one. I felt excited for him.

I squeezed the podium. My hands were working, I realized, and so, overcome, I squeezed, just as tightly as I had the microwave that night, finding again the sensation of willpower.

But by now, Buddy was busy with the waitress and the actor, the former somehow earning a double penalty, which made Carla draw both a head and a body on the gallows.

But when play returned to me, I was able to speak up.

“What the hell is going on?”

The host narrowed his eyes, sniffing the air.

“Guess a letter, John.”

“I don’t know. An ‘A!’”

Sifting through the alphabet pile, Carla placed two magnet letters on the fridge, but she too was giving up her pretense. There was no pointing and smiling. She stared at me with a dour, annoyed expression, as if she could not believe my gall.

“It’s ‘Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here,’” I said.

Which was a cliché, but I was realizing now that if kitsch was going to be my hell, I could at the very least lean into it.

“Well, all right. Thank you for tuning in, ladies and gentlemen. After this important message, John will be moving to the bonus round,”

Buddy said to the camera. “Are we at commercial?”

No one responded. He marched over to me, twirling the microphone cord around his hand. I looked at it and realized it may very well have been the noose with which the poor loser might be strung up.

“You’re not playing by the rules, John,” he said nonchalantly, beginning to use the wire to bind my hands together, tighter and tighter, around my wrists, his own grip surprisingly firm.

“Hey! Hey!” I retorted, trying to pull away.

“Don’t be a jerk. You’ll make this harder if you resist.”

“But that’s my problem. I’m here because I’m a jerk. You can’t damn people and expect them not to be jerks.”

“Do you think you deserve to be damned, John?” the host asked me. He cocked his head to one side.

“I think your show is stupid. But I’m finding that making fun of it and John’s wife Betty probably won’t help me win it.”

“You can’t win it, John. The outcome’s already set. This marathon’s just reruns. Your life is just reruns. The same thing over and over forever. Wake up. Eat. Sleep. And you lose every time. So why should this be different, hm?” Buddy dropped his voice low, but all at once, the studio lights flared, and he spun around to face the audience. “And we’re back!”

The soundstage went dark. The cheers stopped, and it was just me and Buddy, caught in a silent spotlight. Another lamp, mounted on a ceiling somewhere in the expanse of shadows above us, shined straight down, casting the refrigerator, the microwave, and the letters, in its fluorescent glow.

“It’s just us now, John. This is the bonus round. You get four letters. You have one chance to go up and complete the puzzle. And that’s it.”

_  F _ R _ _ _ _  M _  S _ _ _

I cast my gaze at Buddy, wavering a moment, before stepping uncertainly forward into the expanse. Although I could not see the floor beneath my feet, just deep darkness, I felt its steady weight as I moved to stare at the blanks.

An eternity passed as I stared. And maybe it really had. In this moment, in this place, seconds and minutes and moments, they seemed to mean so little.

I forfeit my soul.

That was it. That was the joke.

I had already done it, I knew. I had become so wrapped in the misery of my own making that I had forfeited my very self to it. And willingly.

Choice. That was it, wasn’t it? Me, willpower personified, exerting it in every wrong direction. And so, moving for the pile of letters, hands still bound, I pulled them out the microwave one at a time.

I stuck the magnets in place, whispering the words aloud as they appeared on the refrigerator. And only then, with a definitive nod, did I step back to see my handiwork.

I FORGIVE MY SELF

I awoke on the floor beneath the TV with a sudden, painful gasp.

Dude upstairs dropped something. I stared a good few seconds at the ceiling. And with that, I pressed back onto the carpet and laughed, a full hearty noise, the television set’s extension cord wrapped around my fingers.

Wrestling them free, I checked my reflection in the screen to be safe.

And taking a few more steadying breaths, I moved for my apartment door. I tugged it open to poke my head into the hallway, craning it up the stairwell to the sole unit above mine.

“Hey, pal? Do you need help up there?” 

August 04, 2021 20:17

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11 comments

K. Antonio
15:10 Aug 13, 2021

STOKED to see a sci-fi piece/fantasy piece get shortlisted! Congrats!!

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Lonnie Russo
16:53 Aug 13, 2021

Thank you very much! I appreciate your kind words!

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Amanda Lieser
18:08 Aug 16, 2021

Lonnie, this was such a cool concept! I was wowed by the way you helped us identify with the main character and described his home. I was highly intrigued by his and Michael’s relationship. I also thought the medium, for your Freaky Friday was very cool. Thank you for writing this story and congratulations on getting shortlisted.

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Lonnie Russo
20:40 Aug 16, 2021

Thank you very much for your comment. I appreciate you taking the time to read it and offer your thoughts.

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Shea West
04:36 Aug 16, 2021

Ok this story was legit. It gave me Twilight Zone meets Eerie, Indiana vibes ( I might be dating myself by using the show Erie, Indiana as a reference!). This paragraph made me laugh:This routine could not have come from a sane man, I realized. Sane men did not anthropomorphize their microwaves. They did not threaten to kill their microwaves. They did not inflict psychological torture on their toasters. I think all sane people yell a their appliances when they act up! You are pretty damn clever to have him switch the I forfeit my soul to ...

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Lonnie Russo
20:39 Aug 16, 2021

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment and for giving the story a read! I am so inspired by shows like Twilight Zone; Eerie, Indiana; Tales from the Darkside; and all the others. That compliment means a lot to me! You have no idea how many variations of puzzles I went through, but I'm glad you appreciated the conclusion. Thank you for the very warm welcome!

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00:19 Aug 14, 2021

This story was so awesome! The protagonist and his struggles (especially with that microwave lol) were very relatable. Hell as a game show was such a creative concept, and I loved how the protagonist changed "I forfeit my soul" into "I forgive myself." Excellent job, and congratulations on being shortlisted!

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Lonnie Russo
15:39 Aug 14, 2021

Thank you so much! I really appreciate you giving it a read!

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Dm Pelley
14:31 Jun 21, 2022

Lonnie, I don't often laugh out loud when reading Sci Fi, but I did while reading your piece, and that makes me super happy. "Oh my God, I thought. I’m dead. I electrocuted myself, and I’m dead." That is sooo me. This story is relatable, detailed, and very entertaining. The detail you put in here is on a level normally only found in much longer works. Keep after it-I think you are an authentic writer, which is a rare thing these days. :)

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Lonnie Russo
16:47 Jun 21, 2022

Thank you very much! I appreciate you taking the time to read, and your kind comments mean a lot.

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Tommie Michele
23:49 Oct 18, 2021

Awesome story! Your descriptions are so intriguing and witty and you did a great job of connecting the reader to your protagonist. I loved the way you slowly unraveled the illusion (if that’s what I should call it?) and that you didn’t make everything clear right away. Your thematic wrap-up—“I forgive myself”—was also done nicely. I enjoyed this read! —Tommie Michele

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